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A Tiananmen rebel turns capitalist (cont.)

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By Richard McGill Murphy, FSB Magazine

Good and bad technology

And VFinity's Web site lists surveillance as one of the many industries that the company hopes to transform via VFinity 2.3, its flagship product. The marketing pitch continues: "Hundreds of thousands of hours of video are captured by security cameras every year. The challenge is to store this video in one place and make it intelligently retrievable for quick and accurate use by security professionals. VFinity meets this challenge."

Privacy advocates in the U.S. have long expressed discomfort with the increasing ubiquity of video surveillance, although you'd have to be the Unabomber to deny that video has a useful role to play in law enforcement. But VFinity's marketing literature takes on more sinister connotations in a police state such as China. And the breezy language seems downright surreal when you consider that the founder of VFinity spent more than a decade struggling against China's communist regime, which continues to track his every movement today.

Tong and I discussed this question over the phone and late one night in the coffee shop of my hotel, where he insisted on sitting with his back to the wall so that he could keep one eye peeled for his minders. He noted that although VFinity's video platform incorporates advanced facial-recognition technology, the company had chosen to license that capability from another developer rather than creating it in-house.

"That's a line we don't want to cross," he said. When I asked Tong whether he was crossing an ethical line by selling his software, even indirectly, to customers who might use it as a tool of repression, he shrugged. "I have no illusion that technology can be used for good and bad purposes," he said. "Computers and telephones can be used by good guys and bad guys."

He argues, however, that VFinity will ultimately help the good guys, because it puts the power to manage media into the hands of ordinary users as well as experts. "There's no doubt that a system designed to put media into anyone's hands is liberating," he says. "That was the starting point for founding this company."

Leaving political life

If liberation is indeed VFinity's corporate goal, the company has its work cut out for it in China. Eighteen years after Tiananmen, China remains a bureaucratic police state whose government passes laws and then interprets them to suit itself. Public speech is tightly controlled: Numerous Chinese journalists and activists have been jailed and harassed in recent years for daring to broach "sensitive" topics such as democracy, which remains a mostly abstract concept, HIV/AIDS (all too real) and official corruption, which permeates society.

The Keystone Kops who follow Tong around Beijing represent a state security apparatus that struggles to monitor public gatherings, phone communications and every online keystroke by China's 137 million Internet users, who are discouraged from accessing subversive content by a vast state filtering system known as the Great Firewall of China.

The government tolerates Tong's visits to Beijing, he says, on condition that he stay out of Chinese politics. He seems to keep his side of the bargain. But Tong shook his head when I asked whether he considered himself post-political. "Of course not," he snapped. "I'm post-political only in the sense that I'm not coming back on a mission. I'm observing. [But] if I'm being honest, I have to ask if I'm making a difference."

Tong went on to muse about his generation of activists, few of whom are still confronting the Chinese government. "In our 20s we thought that democratization and ending corruption were the most important things," he said. "Now the most important things are succeeding and becoming affluent."

Those who know Tong best, however, agree that he isn't particularly motivated by money. I dined in Beijing one night with his older sister Qing Shen, a lively, elfin woman of about 40 who co-founded VFinity and has had a high-profile career as a glossy-magazine publisher and lifestyle columnist in Beijing. Over Thai food in a cozy, book-lined restaurant near Workers Stadium, I asked Qing why she thought her brother had left political life. "After ten years you get tired of not seeing results," she replied matter-of-factly. "There's still not much democracy in China."

Taxonomy v. folksonomy

So what makes Tong run? Ambition, partly. While he may not hunger for personal wealth, he clearly wants VFinity to succeed in the marketplace. And like most charismatic leaders, he knows how to harness his own ambition to the power of a broader movement, be it Chinese democracy or the digital media revolution. But I think Tong also believes his rhetoric about the liberating potential of user-controlled, so-called Web 2.0 media technology.

He loves to lecture customers, journalists and anyone else who will listen about the distinction between "taxonomy," a system of classification in which experts provide all the descriptive information, and "folksonomy," a system in which ordinary users make up their own descriptions on the fly. The Dewey Decimal System is a classic taxonomy, still used in libraries worldwide. Web 2.0 services such as YouTube and Wikipedia are folksonomies in the sense that any user has the power to add, organize and annotate the media content, be it text, photographs or videoclips. VFinity is both taxonomy and folksonomy: The administrator can define rules of description for every piece of content on the system, but any authorized user can also add his own descriptive fields.

Is folksonomy liberating? That depends on how it's used. And it remains unclear who stands to benefit more from folksonomy-based technology such as VFinity: Chinese government spooks, who will undoubtedly use it to spy on their own people, or scholars, activists, and journalists, who could use it to challenge the government's version of reality.

I thought about Tong as I walked through Tiananmen Square the other day. The square is actually a giant rectangle, bounded on the south by Mao Zedong's mausoleum, where the late dictator lies embalmed in a glass case for all to see. It's flanked on the north by the walls of the Forbidden City, once home to Chinese emperors and now a tourist attraction, and on the west by the Great Hall of the People, where the Communist Party holds conclaves from which ordinary citizens are normally excluded. Dozens of plainclothes security personnel, mostly quite young, stood around the perimeter. Surveillance cameras were everywhere, scanning the crowds of foreign and Chinese tourists who drifted through the vast, echoing space.

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